Having spent weeks in this column picking through the assorted miseries afflicting us all, it is time to lighten up a little. And if you are a bookie, a bibliophile, a bookworm then Pakistan is just the place for you — and it has been for me from my earliest days here when I discovered the delights of the Sunday book bazaar in Pindi. I spent hours prowling the pavements picking up an eclectic mix of tomes, some of which still grace my shelves.
‘Old book banks’ became my haunts on my rare trips down to the big city from my fastness north of Gilgit — and even Gilgit 22 years ago had a sprinkling of bookstalls and shops.
Gradually there has been a proliferation of places where you can buy books — in Urdu as well as English — and it is rare for even small towns not to have a place tucked away somewhere at the back of the bazaar where all sorts of wonders are on sale for remarkably just a few rupees.
And they are busy, these paper emporia. Even the up-market — and vast — bookshops in Islamabad are generally thronged with browsers and buyers and far from what may be expected in a very conservative country, you can buy books on just about any subject under the sun. Thus I came across the Masters and Johnson classic work, Human sexual inadequacy, in the same shop that I found ‘Fifty Shades of Dreadful Writing’. My own home city of Bahawalpur in the last year has also acquired a half-decent bookshop, and if they have not got what I want, they can get it within a week or so. No problem, Mr Chris.
Larger bookshops offer ‘loyalty tokens’ and discounts, and many now have places to sit… coffee even… along with a helpful staff who actually seem to know something about books and customer care — something of a rarity in Pakistan. Maybe books exude a magic gas that has a civilising effect on those who spend extended periods in their company.
And then there are those literary festivals that often get mixed reviews from snooty reviewers who may not know their Aristophanes from their Zelazny, but which attract people by the thousands wherever they are held.
Having attended a couple in the last three years, I have to say I can find nothing but good to say of them — or rather I consciously choose to say nothing bad. To be sure I could pick holes in them if I wanted, and yes there are things that could be better managed or arranged and there have been some errr… unwise… choices of speakers on occasion. But let us celebrate the reality that a city dubbed one of the most dangerous in the world — Karachi — is now home to a thriving literary festival that attracts international names, and provides one of the exceedingly rare opportunities to present Pakistan in a positive light.
Bookshops are inveigling themselves into niches everywhere. I found myself trapped in a pocket-sized iteration last night as I made my way to have coffee in my favourite perching-place in Kohsar Market, Islamabad. A bijou bookshop cunningly sited to lure passing bookies, with a range of titles that carved holes in my wallet. What better combination — a monster treatise on capitalism in the 21st century, coffee of a bitterness sufficient to reduce my tongue to a micro-organ hiding at the back of my throat and toasted Panini, potato wedges and a dip to die for. Repeat business a certainty.
Why bother with this paean to the printed word? Because despite a host of indications to the contrary, not all of them strictly objective or accurate, Pakistan is not entirely populated by a bunch of blood-boltered philistines bent on mayhem. Indeed, I know several people who I would regard as, well… quite cultured really. Civilised, even. Young and old, men and women. One springs to mind. An old student of mine who regularly borrows books from me — and is good enough to return them unlike some. They are off to their first art exhibition next week. Bought their first painting recently. Whatever next — books, art and paintings… much more of this malarkey and Pakistan might not look as black as it is painted. Tootle-pip!
Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2014.
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